Park life: Istanbul protesters take anti-government message to city's green spaces


An anti-government demonstrator waves a flag on June 17, 2013 on Istikal street in the center of Istanbul.


OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Gezi Park today is a serene place, where books are read and couples romance. In nearby Taksim Square, the heart of virulent anti-government protests earlier this summer, wandering foreign tourists have returned with cameras in hand.

Bored-looking Turkish police officers keep watch. 

But the “Occupy Gezi” movement — a grassroots initiative to oppose a government plan to destroy one of Istanbul’s greenest parks in favor of a replica military barracks — is not yet defeated. 

The movement morphed into massive, nationwide protests against the government and its increasingly lavish development plans in June. The government drive to modernize the country — often at the expense of the country’s heritage — frightened and angered many Turks.

More from GlobalPost: Turkey protests: about more than a shopping mall

But routed by police forces from their original hub at the park in central Istanbul, the Gezi Park demonstrators have since fanned out into the city’s suburbs, squatting in dozens of common areas and engaging local communities with public lectures and film screenings.

Their dispersal into the city’s boroughs has kept their message of defiance alive, by reaching more Istanbul residents in their own neighborhoods. 

Because their initial demonstrations marked the most serious popular threat to the government in a decade, local government councils are now battling the activist squatters for space, sponsoring their own initiatives to woo voters ahead of council elections next year. 

“Gezi Park was something [that stood] for freedom, for peace,” said Nourettin, a pro-Gezi demonstrator who has since settled in with a group of protesters near Ozgurluk Park in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district.

“We wanted to continue what we started there in the local areas of Istanbul, and that’s why we came here,” he said.

Some of the protester groups have hung up pictures of police beating protesters, next to makeshift cafes where they discuss and debate with locals. They also host public lectures and awareness campaigns on things like the environment and peaceful resistance. 

Their demands are varied. Some want Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign. Others just want to talk to the government.

Elsewhere in Kadikoy district, at a seaside park in Moda, the roughly 80 protesters camped out here are popular with the local residents. 

They recently organized an outdoor screening of “Even the Rain,” a film about a Bolivian popular movement that fought the privatization of a city’s water supply, for an audience of about 100. 

The residents of the area have for the most part embraced their presence at the park, demonstrators say. 

On a recent summer night at Ozgurluk Park, some 50 protesters projected a film onto a large sheet strung up between two trees. Alongside it were pictures of some of the demonstrators killed in clashes with police earlier this summer. 

Sixty yards away, around 250 people came to hear renditions of Mozart, Bach and other popular composers on a recent weekend night — entirely at the expense of local authorities.

Local government councils have not given up on control of these parks. And the protesters find it hard to compete.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in July and August, protesters hosted a feast for those breaking their daylong fast — but no more than half a dozen people showed up. 

Meanwhile, in the auditorium close by, the local government council had organized a free concert of traditional Turkish music, with around 500 people in attendance. One woman who earlier in the evening had sat with protesters now took a front row seat at the concert. 

“We will stay here for as long as we need to,” Nourettin said. “Until we know our parks are safe.”